(Sue Ogrocki / AP Photo )
WASHINGTON -- Concluding its investigation surrounding the affair of former Sen. John Ensign (R-Nev.) with the wife of a top aide, the Senate Ethics Committee issued a public admonition of GOP Sen. Tom Coburn of Oklahoma for meeting with the aide in violation of a congressional ban on lobbying.
The public reprimand falls short of a censure or more severe criminal violation, but characterizes Coburn’s actions in meeting with Douglas Hampton, the aide who had left Ensign’s office to become a lobbyist, as “improper conduct.”
“Senators are obligated to meet a high standard,” the committee wrote in a letter signed by all six members of the panel that is equally represented by Republicans and Democrats.
Also admonished by the committee was the Chief of Staff to Sen. Jim DeMint (R-S.C.), Bret Bernhardt, for meetings with Hampton in violation of the ban on lobbying by officials within one year of leaving the Senate.
The affair and the events that followed ricocheted across Washington in a long-running saga, including a Justice Department investigation, and ultimately led to Ensign’s decision last year to resign.
Hampton was indicted by federal prosecutors for violating the revolving-door ban, but has reportedly reached a plea agreement with federal prosecutors in advance of a trial scheduled for later this year, according to Las Vegas newspapers.
Once Ensign went public about his nearly year-long affair with Cynthia Hampton in 2009, Doug Hampton acknowledged publicly having lobbied his former Senate colleagues as he tried to get new work as a lobbyist – a violation of the one-year ban.
Coburn had played a pivotal role as someone who offered personal counsel to both men, who hold conservative Christian views, and he had lived in the religious house known as C Street on Capitol Hill with Ensign.
The decision by Ensign’s parents to give the Hamptons and their children a nearly $100,000 gift when the couple left the senator’s employment drew scrutiny from investigators.
The committee noted the personal relationship Coburn and Bernhardt, who had occasionally met for Bible study with Hampton, as evidence that they knew conducting business with him would violate the ban.
DeMint’s office stood by Bernhardt, the senator’s chief of staff, saying he was “widely respected on both sides of the aisle for his decades of honorable public service.”
“Our office has always adhered to the highest ethical standards and Mr. Bernhardt continues to serve with honor and integrity," said DeMint spokesman Wesley Denton.
The committee’s action is expected to be its last in the case.